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Home » Member Profiles » Isabelle Chapuis: The Perfect Life of a Flutist

Isabelle Chapuis: The Perfect Life of a Flutist


Isabelle Chapuis, of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), recalls what Jean-Pierre Rampal said to his students at the Paris Conservatory when she was there. “Making mistakes is very natural for me. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t permit one mistake. I’m not of this kind. I do not want to be scared before a concert because I must not make a mistake.” 

Isabelle Chapuis of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA) says it’s important to have multiple perspectives to fully embrace the repertoire.

Like Rampal, Chapuis believes that flute playing should be natural and full of expression. Chapuis teaches the French school of playing, as she learned it, telling her own students, “Don’t be afraid to take risks. To completely soar, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. What you touch people with is the real thing; it’s the music.” She laughs, “That’s my school. Please give me everything you have in your heart and don’t worry about the rest.” 

Born in Dijon, France, Chapuis studied with Rampal and renowned flutist Gaston Crunelle at the Paris Conservatory, where she was awarded the Premier Prix de Flûte in 1969 (by a jury presided over by James Galway) and the Premier Prix de Musique de Chambre, in 1970. 

Her own musical lineage is impressive. Her mother was a pianist and composer, who studied with Edgard Varèse; her grandmother was a violinist in Paris; and her daughter is a violinist. She is married to Mark Starr, a former conductor.

At 14, Chapuis made the three-hour train trip from Dijon to Paris every week with her devoted mother to study under Crunelle with whom she rigorously prepared for entry into the conservatory. It was Michel Debost, though, a longtime friend of the family, who taught her the artistry of the flute. “Michel gave me a different side of the flute: singing tone, open tone, different vibrato,” she explained. 

Chapuis says that it’s important to have multiple perspectives to fully embrace the repertoire—and to learn about life. In her master classes, she encourages students to “experiment; make a judgment, then you become yourself.” 

During her student years, Chapuis experienced firsthand what she describes as l’Age d’Or de la flûte francaise: hundreds of concerts by legendary flutists and the opportunity to study with prominent composers Olivier Messaien, Jacques Rivier, and Henri Dutilleux. 

At 25, after a move to California, Chapuis was invited to play in a master class at San José State University given by the famous Hungarian flutist András Adorján, who was then touring California. Adorján noted that she was an example of the teaching of Rampal—with whom he had also studied. At the conclusion of the master class, a professor surprised Chapuis by offering her a position on the faculty at San José State University School of Music and Dance teaching undergraduate and graduate flute students and chamber music classes. She accepted, but panicked, saying, I had to “learn how to drive, and then I had to really work on my English.”

It was the first of many opportunities for Chapuis, who held that position for 33 years. 

Fresh from Paris, everything seemed to fall in her lap. “Being a woman in Paris was not at all simple,” she says. “It was a male-dominated field. At that time, they didn’t take women seriously. It was not the same in America.”

In 1983, the former Metropolitan Opera star Irene Dalis invited Chapuis to join the orchestra of a new opera company, Opera San José, as principal flute. Among the hundreds of flute solos that Chapuis performed, one in particular stands out: the great mad scene in Donizetti’s Lucia da Lammermoor—in which the flute alone accompanies the insane soprano for the extended aria.

Now 73, and recently retired from her opera seat, Chapuis continues to teach privately, taking on advanced students, from 15 to 18 years old—when they’re searching for direction, she says. Her students are family. “It’s more than the flute. It’s how to be. How to say thank you, how to appreciate things, going to concerts, how to be a whole person.” She says, “That’s my calling.” 

In 2014, one of her private students, Annie Wu, won first prize in the National Flute Association’s International Competition for High School Flutists. Soon after, Wu was named a Presidential Scholar in the Fine Arts. Chapuis received a letter of commendation from President Obama’s administration, naming her “one of the United States’ most influential teachers of music.”

Chapuis has had a seemingly perfect musical life, but the imperfect is not lost on her. In 1989, she was playing a piece with particularly strident sounds. Following rehearsals and repeated performances in the opera pit, her hearing weakened. Over time, it deteriorated until the nerve in one ear was dead. She was able to continue to play at a virtuosic level because her acute hearing in the other ear compensated for the loss. 

She freely discusses her hearing loss, mainly to help other musicians. It’s a cautionary tale to encourage players to take care of their hearing. She says, “Be careful. Use earplugs, especially when you’re confined to the pit, with brass right behind you. This career is not easy on your body.” 

Looking back, Chapuis says her life is rich because of music and the privilege of
being surrounded by extraordinary flutists and teachers. But it’s her father, a doctor, whom Chapuis credits for the best advice. “He used to say, ‘Modern medicine is changing. People have less time to do interviews and listen to patients. The first thing I do is I sit down and I get to know the person before I treat them. The feeling of human relationships helps me treat the patients.’” Chapuis says, “I do the same thing. And I think, he taught me well.”

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